Breaking bread is a critical part of many communities, especially Polish ones, where breaking oplatki connects holiday celebrations to the sacrament of the Eucharist at Mass. My family broke bread almost every Christmas growing up. We would don our red and green best and drive to our local Catholic church in suburban Chicagoland, where we would pick up the unleavened bread to break together that night. Years later, my diagnosis of Celiac Disease would stop these traditions, but it never quelled my fascination with the tradition and the importance of wheat to the Catholic Church.
The small colorful paper sleeves sat in a basket in the church vestibule, where rectangular paper-thin wafers with embossed images of the Mary (oplatki) lay snugly in their wrappers. When we arrived home, my family would sit at our dinner table and pass around the wafer, breaking off small pieces and sharing our hopes for the new year. It was a simple but meaningful tradition—my father’s family immigrated from Poland to the US two generations prior and some of our family remain on ancestral farmland to this day. It was a reminder of where he and his family had come from, rekindled after moving to a small Chicago suburb with a thriving Polish population.
Oplatki, as hard, thin wafers, recall those used during the celebration of the Eucharist in Catholic Mass, and both traditionally contain gluten. While one is shared privately at home, another is tightly regulated by the Church, raising issues for a gluten-free Catholic like myself who was still eager to participate in her Church.
Gluten-free or low-gluten wafers had been used for about a decade, usually purchased when a member of the parish disclosed a need to a priest, but by 2017, as gluten-free trends took the nation, the wafers had become loosely regulated. In response, gluten-free wafers came under fire from the Vatican. A letter released in July 2017 by the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, headed by Cardinal Robert Sarah, clarified that wafers, or hosts, consecrated by clergy must be made “purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition.”
This was not new, rather cementing guidance from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2003, which declared completely gluten-free hosts invalid for consecration.
Reaffirming the 2003 letter, Cardinal Sarah clarified that low-gluten hosts (those with less than 20 parts per million, and thus safe for people with Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes intestinal inflammation) are valid, “provided they contain a sufficient amount of gluten to obtain the confection of bread without the addition of foreign materials and without the use of procedures that would alter the nature of the bread.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved four providers of low-gluten hosts with less than 20 parts per million (ppm).
While the hosts are considered by the FDA and people with Celiac Disease as gluten-free (allowed to place the gluten-free label on the box), the Church still considers it low-gluten and therefore valid for consecration. My parents and I first learned about the FDA regulation in 2014, when we spoke with our pastor about gluten-free options at our church. From my personal experience, I carried Cavanagh low gluten hosts with me and a pyx, or small container, to separate it from the glutinous hosts on the altar during consecration. It depends on the parish, but some will also provide a designated Eucharistic minister for the gluten-free host, to ensure no cross contamination.
But despite the availability of low-gluten hosts, I was sad to lose the tradition of the oplatki and sought out recipes to celebrate the tradition once again later this year. Taking cues from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, an order based in Clyde, Missouri, who produce a wafer that contains less than 10 ppm, I have begun researching gluten alternative flours that could create the same breakable, thin bread.
Unlike the wafers that need to be consecrated by a priest and require authorization from the USCCB, oplatki are shared at home and not sanctified or regulated, allowing changes to the traditional wheat recipe, so gluten-free Poles have taken to experimenting at home. Erin Kapela makes her wafers with rice, tapioca, potato, Xanthan gum, salt, and sweetener. Chef’s Pencil recommends gluten-free flour (often a conglomerate of rice, tapioca, potato, and nut flours), Xanthan gum, and water. My mom mixes our own gluten-free base from brown rice flour, white rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, Xanthan gum, white sorghum flour, and corn starch.
As I was thinking through my own recipes this past summer, and how they wouldn’t be allowed to create a Communion wafer, I began to wonder: why is wheat so important to the Catholic Church?
Was wheat not an element of Catholic material culture, a tangible that the Church regulates like candles and liturgical garments? This builds on Michael Dietler’s chapter on “Feasting and Fasting” in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, which sees food as an “embodied material culture,” connecting its production and exchange to personal and global economies. As Isabelle de Solier argues in Food and Self: Consumption, Production, and Material Culture, in a post-industrial society, production has found meaning in leisure, and so in a material-oriented world, we must explore how our selves are made through consumption, specifically in this case, how our religious identity is made through our consumption of wheat.
So why reinforce the purity of wheat in each Communion wafer in 2017? At this time, gluten-free food options were on the rise and becoming more and more interwoven with our personal economies and consumption patterns, so this latest reinforcement from the Church is an exercise of the Church’s control over the physical embodiment of its spiritual power. As a form of “embodied material culture,” the Eucharist serves as a conduit for sanctification of those who consume it. The Church therefore reinforces the legitimacy of what we consume, as the Church believes via transubstantiation the body of Jesus, by regulating what we can consume, and what is able to be consecrated as the body of Jesus.
While some may see this guidance as connecting the Communion wafer to Jesus’s breaking of bread at the Last Supper, as the Bible explains, the Last Supper was a Passover sedar and unleavened matzah bread would have been served in remembrance of when the Hebrews fled Egypt. But matzah bread was made of many starches besides wheat—barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt according to Ezechiel’s sixth century instructions.
The Church should recognize that the wheat used today to create these wafers is strikingly different from that used two millennia ago. With the introduction of genetically modified crops, there is likely little that connects a Communion wafer in 2022 to the bread, the Church teachers, that Jesus broke all those years ago so rather than seeing this guidance as a reinforcement of a historical Eucharist, it is a regulation of a tangible, embodied material culture.
These regulations around gluten-free hosts are really a reinforcement of the Catholic Church’s control over their rituals. For the Catholic Church and Christianity overall, bread has been a symbol of spiritual nourishment, and by controlling what can be consecrated, and can therefore have recognized spiritual power, the Church is reinforcing and restricting access to its power. It’s control over consumption, rather than a commentary on the importance of wheat.
For me, a Catholic with Celiac Disease, I see this 2017 letter as a reinforcement of the importance of wheat to the Church and its practice to Mass. Religious material culture, or material religion, refers to how religious practice and spirituality can permeate every facet of our lives, from what we wear, to what we pray with, to what we consume. Although there are options available to me at Mass—a low-gluten wafer—this guidance reinforces the importance of wheat, something I cannot consume, as critical of the celebration of Mass. As such, I am again reminded of how the Church holds and exerts power over its followers by regulating what they consume and create boundaries for those who cannot participate.
As I prepare for Christmas this year, with several gluten-free oplatki recipes in hand, I am reminded of this fact: that even if oplatki does not need to be low gluten, what it recalls—the Eucharist—does. It is a reminder of the importance of studying food material religion, and what power it exerts over my identity and those of other Poles.
Image Attribution: Mario Carvajal, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons